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India Inc to explore and extract mineral reserves 6,000 meter under the sea

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In April, a group of scientists from Chennai boarded an ice-strengthened vessel to test an indigenously developed mining machine, Varaha-1, in the Central Indian Ocean. It was a week-long journey off the Tamil Nadu coast before reaching the destination from where they released the machine by using a deep-sea umbilical cable. On the seabed, at a depth of 5,270 m, the mining machine successfully crawled, undertaking the desired locomotion trials for three hours before being retrieved on deck.It was a moment of great satisfaction for the two dozen scientists, engineers and technicians on board, senior scientist and director of National Institute of Ocean Technology (NIOT), Dr GA Ramadass, tells ET. Their jubilant mood was captured in a photo shot at night mode on April 16, with the yellow Varaha-1 in the backdrop.Varaha-1’s adventure is part of India’s gearing up to hunt for treasures on ocean beds. It is also contemplating engaging the private sector to make equipment, carry out exploration and even venture into commercial exploitation as and when it will be permitted.Backed by the Rs 4,077 crore Deep Ocean Mission, approved by the Union cabinet last week and in which mining is a major component, India is all set to develop an integrated mining system by 2024-25. The blueprint includes developing a manned submersible to carry three people (two scientists and one pilot) to a depth of 6,000 m as well as deploying several specially designed mining machines such as Varaha-1 to collect precious metals from the seabed and pump those to the mothership, a move that may rewrite the very script of India’s energy security. 83876250“Very soon we will involve India’s private sector in deep ocean mining,” says Dr Madhavan Nair Rajeevan, Union secretary, Ministry of Earth Sciences, in a telephone interview with ET. “Industry will play a critical role. Private companies will provide ships, build new technology, make electronic and mechanical components, and will also get engaged in exploration.At a later stage, when commercial exploitation is permitted, the private sector will likely partner the government in mining, too,” he says, adding that the exact modality of the private partnership is still being worked out and will be announced soon.India is eying some 380 million tonnes of polymetallic nodules containing nickel, copper, cobalt and manganese that are found on seabed or just below the seabed in the Central Indian Ocean Basin (CIOB) where India has exclusive rights over 75,000 sq km as allocated by the International Seabed Authority (ISA), a UN body, back in 2002.Various estimates accessed by the government put the total value of the minerals differently, in a wide range of $45 billion to $185 billion, although the Ministry of Earth Sciences has made public the average of those numbers, rounded at $110 billion, in its official communications. 83876275“As electric vehicles are the future of the world, imagine the importance of metals such as copper, nickel or cobalt. We all know China is controlling those items,” says secretary Rajeevan.It is estimated that CIOB contains some 4.7 million tonnes (MT) of nickel, 4.29 MT of copper, 0.55 MT of cobalt and 92.59 MT of manganese, in addition to huge iron ore deposits, according to GoI data.That India is a net importer of minerals such as copper, nickel or manganese reiterates the urgency of innovating cost-effective solutions to extract these from ocean beds. For example, India in 2020 imported 5.4 lakh tonnes of copper (copper ores and concentrates), worth $897 million, according to Trade Map data. 83876299Shailesh Nayak, former Union secretary in the Ministry of Earth Sciences and present director of Bengaluru-based National Institute of Advanced Studies, says cobalt and nickel are highly important strategically in today’s electronics age. “We should, however, think of processing and packaging those precious metals in an innovative manner on the mothership itself rather than carrying those in raw form some 3,000 km to the coast and then transport those again to a processing unit,” says Nayak, himself a scientist.But there are multiple hurdles before India could extract the reserve minerals from ocean beds. First, ISA has so far given its permission only for exploration, not exploitation.Rajeevan does not, however, consider it a hurdle, claiming that he expects the commercial exploitation code — a work in progress at ISA—to be published in two-three years. So, what India needs to wrap up by then is to get itself equipped with an economically viable technological model to pump out those metals, a much-needed shot in the arm for India’s energy security as well as economic well-being.The second challenge is how to extract minerals in a cost-effective manner. Countries that have joined the race for deep-sea mining include China, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, Russia as well as small islands such as the Cook Islands and Kiribati, but no one will likely share the technology they have invented.“Feasibility of commercial deep-sea mining will always be location-specific, depending on how valuable the mineral deposit is, and the technological and economic feasibility of its extraction. Depending on survey results which may indicate potential areas, we have to undertake exploration using appropriate technologies and also develop extraction technologies in the case of promising finds,” says former Union mining secretary S Vijay Kumar, adding that private sector should be involved in manufacturing mining equipment as well as in building ships for geo-scientific surveys.At present, two heavy-engineering companies, BHEL and L&T, are engaged in some minor work on the project, details of which are not available.The reserve is undoubtedly lucrative, but challenges to bring the metals up are also humongous. They are embedded in polymetallic nodules, which look like potatoes, the average size of one being about 10 cm, say scientists. But lifting those potatoes up is no cakewalk. Ramadass of NIOT lists some hurdles — distant location, brutal high pressure (500 times more than ambient atmospheric pressure on surface), softer sea bed, low visibility and water temperature of just 3-4 degree C. These minerals are available 13 to 15 degrees south of the equator, meaning a distance of over a week by ship from India’s southernmost tip in Tamil Nadu.“Also, hydrothermal sulphides (with several metals in them) are available further away at some 26 degrees south of the equator in the Southern Indian Ocean. It’s some 5,000 km away from Indian coast and it takes a fortnight for a ship to reach there,” Ramadass adds.In addition to mining, the Deep Ocean Mission — the first phase of which is being implemented in 2021-24 at an estimated cost of `2,823 crore — will encompass creation of ocean climate change advisory services, exploration of hydrothermal sulphides in midoceanic ridges and evolving human capacity and enterprise for blue trade and blue manufacturing.The budget earmarked for just one component in the mission — deep-sea mining and sending a manned submersible — is Rs 1,520 crore, out of which Rs 1,077 crore will be spent in the first three years. No one can complain of paucity of funds to experiment with new technology and extraction methods, at least for now.There is a darker side to the entire exercise: environmental hazards. After all, once the mining machines start whirring at a depth of 6,000 m, the ecology is bound to be disrupted. Nayak and several other scientists say there could be large animals (fauna) inhabiting deep seabeds. “Humankind does not know much about those animals so far. So, we have to find a middle path between fostering a blue economy and keeping our environment alive,” he says.In fact, photographs to be captured by robots won’t be good enough to understand that terra incognita. At 6,000 m below, it is pitch dark. Secretary Rajeevan adds, “We will send two such scientists who understand the marine flora and fauna the best.” Maybe, the mission will have a spinoff: unravelling some mystery animals deep down the Indian Ocean.

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